Happened In Key West
Charing Cross Theatre Summer 2018
This amiable little musical wants to be The Phantom Of The Opera but keeps getting diverted into Little Shop Of Horrors. Its two identities keep tripping over each other, keeping either from fully succeeding.
It is inspired by bizarre actual events. In 1930s and 1940s Florida a man became so enamoured of a younger woman that when she died of tuberculosis he stole her body from its crypt and lived with it for seven years.
Echoes of Psycho aside, there actually is the material here for a play about operatic (if misguided) passion, and also for a black comedy parodying such over-sentimentalising.
The problem with It Happened In Key West is that its creators (Credits read book, music and lyrics by Jill Santoriello, book and additional lyrics by Jason Huza, book and original concept by Jeremiah James) either couldn't decide which they were writing or just wanted it all.
When the mad scientist played by Wade McCollum opens with the completely over-the-top 'Elena' we can't help waiting for the more serious 'Undying Love' to turn into self-parody.
When he later sings his strong self-explaining ballad 'If You've Never Felt This Way' we can't help remembering that a few moments earlier he was singing 'Everything's Right With The World' to the corpse while re-attaching a rotting arm.
And the tonal clashes go in the other direction as well. When Alyssa Martyn as the dead woman's spirit beautifully sings the touching 'I Feel Loved' it is hard for her to return to being a comically decaying corpse.
Wade McCollum plays both of the roles he's been given – the seriously romantic and the comic – with total and effective commitment. It's just that they remain two separate roles, and neither the writers nor director Marc Robin give the performer much help in making a coherent character out of them.
The show's songs are more successful musically than lyrically, with each of the ballads I've mentioned being built on lovely Lloyd-Webber-ish romantic melodies and the big Broadway-style production number 'Elena From Town,' though in an entirely different musical style from everything else, satisfyingly rousing.
A sharp difference in lyric quality from song to song invites speculation on who wrote what, most of the rhyme schemes being thoroughly conventional and predictable (not quite June/moon, but close), while a few songs reach too hard for Sondheim-ish cleverness (apoplectic/electric).
If this show were on video and you edited it so you only watched alternate scenes, you'd find a rather moving drama of insane but unquestionably sincere love. And if you watched only the other scenes and songs, you'd have a vaguely Ortonesque black comedy.
The problem is that you can't do that, and put back together It Happened In Key West is less than the sum of its parts.
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Review - It Happened In Key West - Charing Cross Theatre 2018